Note to Self (P.S. Kirkegaard)

An artist starves for their work. A writer never quits reading. A wise man travels often. A platitude is a platitude because we count it as common sense.

The most beautiful painting I’ve ever seen was painted by a nurse between shifts. The best stories woven by farmers leaning over the wheels of their tractors. The most poignant wisdom over a beer and burger in a bar in Washington.

A platitude is a platitude because we count it as common sense. Common sense is just a phrase for the things we want everyone to believe without thinking.

I spent years as an academic, penning masterpieces that nobody loved. The only things I haven’t burned since then were written as the stupid boy leaving the farm and the broken scholar coming home. Those things I wrote when I didn’t know better  are my apocrypha. I read and stare back over them wondering why my better self can’t make the same.

Ideas were scribbles, scratches, and grunts pried between bouts of energy. I fought with myself in the house I’d made, screaming in the kitchen by the cellar stairs. I watched that waiting descent with a sidelong glance, afraid to go into that basement until I was pushed.

A friend killed himself the other day and I was pushed down those stairs. In the dark cellar underneath I found my best pictures framed and my best words bound in leather. I found the exhiled farmer and the stupid scholar huddling together, smiling over a book I’d read with my dead friend.

Everything I’d ever planned was in the house above, pinned and labeled next to their blueprints. I looked up the stairs and then looked at my better selves lounging happily under the bare bulb illuminating the dungeon where I’d sent my best work.

“Turn out the light.”

Father’s Son

At the ripe old age of 25, I sat in the gown and bed of a sterile room as I recovered from kidney surgery. An I.V. was washing out what felt like a year of hangovers, adding moisture to the cotton farm someone planted in my mouth.

“Did…” I slurred the word, dragging the sentence up with effort, “did the doctor give me the new diet?”

“Yeah.” My dad looked at me, “He came in while you were still doped up. You have to quit eating anything with high fructose corn syrup.”

“B-but,” I struggled through the haze, “that’s everything.”

“It’s not everything you big baby,” my dad rolled his eyes, “you can still eat fruit and bread and whatever. At least now you have to eat like an adult.”

I shook my head slowly, confused, unsure.

“Your choice.” dad shrugged, “Change the diet or let them cut another forty stones out of your pisser. Doesn’t matter to me, I’m just the driver.”

“‘kay, ‘kay…alright. No more corn syrup” I waved off the lecture.

Weeks later. The doctor removes the stint. Clean bill of health.

“See my nurse on the way out,” he tells me, “she has the new diet plan you need to follow.”

“No worries there,” I told him, “my dad filled me in on what you said after the surgery. I got rid of everything with high fructose corn syrup. Cost me like four hundred dollars to replace all that crap, but it’s better than doing this again.”

My doctor stares at me.

“You didn’t talk to my dad after the surgery did you?”

“I’ve never even met your dad.”

My mom wouldn’t let me in the house. I wouldn’t put the rake down and dad wouldn’t quit laughing.

“But, it was funny!” he yelled to me through the cracked window.

 

“John!”

“Huh?” I look up from my book.

“Did you tell our child that Santa Claus steals children that don’t leave out cookies?”

“Maybe.”

“And that he takes them to the North Pole to be raised by the elves until they’re fat enough to be fed to the reindeer?”

“It sounds vaguely familiar.”

“Because your son has spread butter and flour across our kitchen and is crying because we don’t have chocolate chips.”

Oh, shit.

“I can’t believe you.” She stalks out of our office.

“But it was funny!” I yell after her.

;

I watched the television, all of thirteen years-old, as Jack Kavorkian walked into the courthouse.

“Send him to jail.” I dismissed.

My dad’s godfather took off his oxygen mask and looked at me.

“You don’t know what it feels like.”

I didn’t.

I never took hunting seriously until after college. I hiked, I tracked, I grew up in the woods, but I’d never harvested a deer. 

The first buck I killed, I shot while it was running from me. I found it in the meadow, laying on the ground panting. I took out my pistol.

I didn’t know what it felt like, to hurt like it did. I watched as I stopped it.

I walked back to camp and told our friend Jeff and my grandpa: “I shot a buck. I need help bringing it back.”

Jeff came with me and walked me through cleaning it, helped me carry it back to camp. We took a photo that I kept on my desk; with my graduation photo; with my wedding photo. A once in a lifetime event.

I heard him on my parent’s porch a few weeks later.

“When he came back to camp, you could tell he was excited. On his face though, you could see he felt bad for killing it. ”

I didn’t know what it felt like.

Mom and I stood in the kitchen trading stories.

“I needed to tell you…but I didn’t when it happened. Jeff died. I didn’t tell you because…well, because…”

What do you do when a moment changes; when a picture captures two points in time; when you make and lose a friend; when an accomplishment is a final memory?

When two choices split the same moment into a bittersweet scar you’d drink to stop thinking about, do you put the picture in your desk? I used my finger to wipe the dust off the frame.

I didn’t know what it felt like.

Math for Monkeys

I sat at my desk, listening to two bullshit jockeys distract each other from working.

“I don’t understand people these days, they want to find a medication for every problem. Like, Attention Deficit whatever…what a crock of shit. Someone not paying attention is called poor discipline.”

The other brings his shoulders up towards the face he’s built up a fart-clenching grimace across.

“Well, actually I take medications for A.D.D. I can tell you, without them I have a hard time even focusing on a conversation like this.”

The first fends off the social disaster, “I’m so sorry, I didn’t know.”

“No, no, no,” the other forgives, “I agree about some of the other things they try and make disorders. Like Oppositional Defiant Dis-blahblah. That’s just a kid who needs a swat on the ass.”

The first guy gets to look uncomfortable now. 

“Actually my nephew has that and it’s no joke.”

“Yeah, yeah,” other guys practices backstroke, “in some cases sure, but generally speaking…”

I plug in my headphones. I’ve never heard society argue with itself before; it feels like the soundtrack to a migraine and the inspiration for a heart attack.

The secretary brings sanity back: “Can you two shut the hell up?”

Black Coffee

When I left home and started school, I drank Coke and Chai tea. I wrote poetry and fiction to be the next Hemingway or Jack London. It was romance as only a teen from rural Oregon moving into the city could imagine it.

Sweet, processed, trademarked.

The school was too small, nothing there to inspire me. So, I picked a new school, a bigger school, and I drank mochas. I wrote and it was “new,” it was experimental, and it was “misunderstood” when it was rejected.

I was the next postmodern warrior, I was e.e. cummings with my artful disdain towards punctuation and syntax. I was still a romantic in my ripe twenties. Learning sex and alcohol and blasphemy and drugs and protest. I was an expert, damn it, and my every word oozed knowledge.

I earned my paper, I left school, and I drank water. I drank water when I didn’t boil it for noodles. I found a job that didn’t care what my degree said, there were no jobs that gave a damn what my degree said.

Poetry? Fiction? Put it on the coffee table, talk about it over a beer. Cry about it when you get too drunk, preferably after they’ve gone home.

I dated women who were looking for men while I couldn’t stand the thought of not being some prodigy. I was the next Charles Bukowski. I…I haven’t been writing lately, but I kept my notes on the desk. When the right idea hits, BAM! Everything will be right there.

It didn’t. It doesn’t. I moved home and found a profession. I made a life.

My wife comes into our office, dressed for town and holding her purse in one hand and my Rocket Raccoon coffee mug in the other.

“When you’re finished writing, I’m ready for the store.” She sets down the mug and leaves, shutting the door softly behind her.

I work and I drink black coffee. When I write I’m nobody, but I have something to say.

Goblins Weren’t Real

She stormed in and slammed the door. Whatever she found, she wanted my attention.

“What the hell John!? I asked you to weed! Now it looks like some blind horse just kicked holes in my flower bed! I asked for one thing! What happened?!”

I turned from the game (3rd and long, playoffs) and pushed the beer away, summoning gravitas.

“Gnomes darling. Terrible nasty buggers, trying to eat the flowers. Had to beat ’em with a rake. It was the only way.”

“Gnomes aren’t real, jackass!”

Days pass. Another door, another slam, same bride is fuming. I pause Tivo  (I’ve learned) and my fighter’s fist is hanging in the air. I set the cigar in the ashtray she’s assigned since the last couch.

“Damn it, John! Why is all the laundry in the tool shed!? I asked you to do one thing! How hard is it to get off your–”

“Gremlins.”

She stares, curses hang from her mouth.

“I tried to do the wash, my love. But the evil little bastards are always watching me. Always waiting. This time…this time, my darling, they saw their chance.” I hang my head solemnly, emphasizing my shame.

“Gremlins aren’t real, you tool!”

More days. New door (replaced the old one). She’s still with the slamming.

“What?! John! I can’t even–what the hell happened?! How hard was it to clean the living room?”

The coffee table is in the corner. Rugs folded over, couch cushions stacked in a cathedral praying to the Patron Saint of Filth, while pools of dark liquids seep across the floor.

“Goblins, baby. Vicious warty scamps, they did this–I’m trying to bait them out with soda…it’s gonna work this time.”

Eyes roll to the ceiling.

“John. There’s no such thing as–”

Our son jumps out of the cushions, teeth bared and hands clawing the air.

“Hissss!”

“Oh. Well, okay…”

Sister’s Tattoo

I draw like I write. I throw ink on an itch until it goes away. I rarely know where I I’m heading as I pull the first line across the paper, but where I end up might be exactly what I’ve been hoping to find. As I start, I cross my fingers that this time I stumble through the ink and find home.

Once a year, summer charges in and the inkwell dries. I’m a husk in those months where everything burns under the open sky. I hate it. I miss the cold. My mind aches when I try to think, let alone draw. I crave the brisk fall, with the leaves rotting and cold winds howling. My family loses me as the spring rains wandered off and the world fills with bright and heat and noise and people.

I hid. If they found me I hissed and raged. There was no medication, no salve, nothing to do for the torture of heat. I wandered from night to night, finding small reprieves when the crowds wandered inside.

My little sister called me in the burn of August (that special month where my norse blood boils) and asked me to draw Little Red Riding Hood for her arm. Didn’t care what, didn’t care how, just wanted her brother’s work on her arm.

It was too much. It was too hot. How was I supposed to–

“I’ll try.”

I broke pens on pads. Raged, threw tantrums, bawled. For the first time I was supposed to make something real and I kept tripping over idea after idea. I fell on my face, crawled, and threw draft after draft into the bucket.

Then sometimes you stumble from the glare. Sometimes things start to look familiar. Sometimes a little direction, when you least want it, will bring you home. 

“This is the best I could do…”

A smile: “That’s her.”